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McDonald's takes a small bite out of Happy Meal sodium content

McDonald's cut the salt content of its new chicken wrap Happy Meal option by using sodium-reduced chicken and sauce, and a lighter cheese blend.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The sodium-rich Happy Meal is getting a slight makeover.

McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. is changing its menu to include a lower-sodium grilled chicken snack wrap option in its child-oriented Happy Meals. The change involves lowering the sodium in a variety of ingredients, which will have a cascade effect on sodium levels in a dozen other McDonald's menu items.

"I'd call it a significant reduction in sodium," said Richard Ellis, senior vice-president of communications and public affairs at McDonald's Canada.

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The move, expected to be announced Tuesday, reflects the country's growing awareness of the dangers of high sodium consumption, and could help push other fast-food chains to take action. The sodium-reduced products are now available at McDonald's franchises across the country.

But the change also highlights the food industry's struggle to respond to health concerns over sodium while maintaining the taste to which customers are accustomed.

Even though the fast-food giant is introducing lower sodium levels in a variety of menu items, excessive levels of salt will still be present in many items sold by the chain.

"It's actually a complex issue to which there's no right answers," said Norm Campbell, Canadian Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control and one of the country's leading advocates for lower sodium consumption.

In an ideal world, Dr. Campbell said, parents wouldn't let their kids eat food high in calories, fat, salt and sugar.

"That's really the bottom line. We're feeding our kids junk and we're wondering why they're unhealthy," Dr. Campbell said.

This reality makes it important when companies recognize the need to offer healthier menu items, Dr. Campbell said. He added it's unfortunate that many companies only make nutritional improvements when facing pressure from health lobby groups or the threat of government action.

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McDonald's is focused on finding a balance between health-conscious fare and tried-and-true favourites, Mr. Ellis said.

"It's about offering our customers choice. You want a low-fat yogurt parfait and some apple slices, or do you want a Big Mac and a good old Coke? Your choice."

The federal government has appointed a task force to develop a sodium-reduction plan aimed at consumers and the food industry, which is expected to be made public this summer.

The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, an industry group, represents restaurants on the task force. Officials from the organization say they recognize the need for lower sodium levels, but are strong advocates of voluntary reduction instead of government regulations.

The task force is considering only voluntary moves at the moment, but regulations could play a role in the future if the industry doesn't respond adequately.

Mr. Ellis said McDonald's will be watching to see what the task force recommends to determine what course of action to take.

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The restaurant's changes mean that a grilled chicken snack wrap, which has been on the menu since 2007, will be available as part of a Happy Meal. The wrap will contain 530 milligrams of sodium, down from the previous 780 milligrams.

But that's still nearly half the daily recommended sodium intake for children aged 4 to 8, and more than one-third of the daily recommended intake for children aged 9 and older. The daily recommended sodium intake for children aged 4 to 8 is 1,200 milligrams; for those 9 and older, it's 1,500 milligrams.

The Canadian Stroke Network says that as a rule of thumb, sodium content should be less than 200 milligrams per serving, and consumers should avoid anything higher than 400 milligrams per serving.

The decrease was accomplished by using sodium-reduced grilled chicken, tortilla and ranch sauce, as well as a lighter cheese blend. As a result, the sodium levels in other menu items using those ingredients will also go down. The lower-sodium items include:

- Breakfast burrito: 800 milligrams of sodium trimmed to 700 milligrams

- Grilled chicken classic sandwich: 1,010 milligrams of sodium down to 810 milligrams

- Spicy buffalo chicken snack wrap: 910 milligrams of sodium reduced to 780 milligrams

- Mighty Caesar entree salad with warm grilled chicken: 1,070 milligrams of sodium falls to 850 milligrams.

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